Tuesday, January 24, 2017

Stuff I Don't Want

As Lesley and I count down toward retirement and the move to Oregon, we've begun making decisions about what to take, what to sell, and all like that. In other words, since we'll need very little in Oregon, at least for the time being, we're divesting ourselves of as much as possible. After all, why pay to ship stuff to Oregon and then pay to store it once we get there?
I'm told by people who should know (e.g., people
whom I am married) that I buy entirely too many
cars. Which is ridiculous, of course. This is "Winnie,"
a 1957 MG.
This exercise has made it apparent that I have too much stuff. The thing is, I like stuff; always have. Books, for instance. I love books, and getting rid of them is difficult, almost painful. Of course, books are very heavy and take up a lot of space. The ones I really need, I'll keep, and I can buy (or check out from the library) digital versions of other books as they come along. I love books, I truly do—their heft and smell and feel, even the sound they make when you turn a page. But there are ecological and economic imperatives at work here; as wonderful as printed books are, it doesn't make a whole lot of sense to attach weight (in the form of paper) to a weightless commodity (information) and then pay to ship that information all over the world. At least, not all the time, and not when you have other alternatives.

And a 1969 VW bug. Because look at it! How could
I pass it up?
But it's not just books; there are other things, too. I guess I've always been somewhat acquisitive. Like a crow. I need new things. Shiny things. And even if I don't need them, well, I need them, you know? So over time, I have collected stuff: I have tools and guns and guitars and computers and . . .  well, lots of things that I really, really wanted at the time. (Cars, too, but I purposely didn't mention that. No need to remind Lesley of how many cars I've had over the course of our marriage. On the other hand, we've been married almost 30 years, and I'm almost positive that I haven't had 30 cars during that time, so really, I'm doing pretty well. Not an issue. A non-problem. Completely under control. You know, in case she should happen to mention it.)

And a '69 Ford Bronco that I might have accidentally
On the other hand, in spite of my love of technology, I keep encountering techie things for which I have absolutely no desire. They strike me as either silly, overpriced, useless, or (perhaps worst of all) as potential security/privacy risks.

Here's a list of "cool tech stuff" that I don't want:  

  1. Smart watches. I really like watches, but I like analog watches that don't try to do anything except tell the time—and maybe the date, although that's getting awfully fancy. I don't really need a watch that buzzes to tell me that I just received an email on my smartphone, which is right there in my pocket and which already buzzed anyway to tell me the same thing. Actually, I have a bunch of watches; I should probably get rid of some once I retire. I mean, one of my retirement goals is to not give a damn what time it is, so who needs a bunch of watches? Especially when at any given time at least half of my watches are sitting in a forlorn little pile, awaiting a trip to the store for new batteries.
  2. Smart TVs. I really just want a TV that works well and to which I can connect Web-enabled goodies (Roku, Chromecast, etc.) when—and only when—I choose to. (Because, after all, life without Netflix would not be worth living.) That way, when the Roku (or whatever such unit) dies, I still have a TV.
  3. Autonomous cars, trains, planes, skateboards, unicycles, etc. Yeah, count me out. I know too much about software to feel comfortable in two tons of remote-controlled steel and plastic and glass careening down the highway at 70 mph under the control of a bunch of programmers who may or may not have gotten enough sleep before writing the "avoid accident" subroutine. (And Lesley could never handle being in an autonomous car; she can't stand not to be the one driving. She'll only grudgingly let me drive; she's certainly not going to allow a computer program to drive.)
  4. Foldable phones, computers, and screens. If it's small enough to drop into a pocket, it's at risk of being sent through the wash, and I have enough trouble with Kleenex, flash drives, business cards, and packets of gum. I definitely can't risk a $600 foldable phone. Anything that folds up to fit in a pocket would either go through the wash or get lost. 
  5. Laptops with touchscreens. I can see the need if you're an artist, say, working on a larger system (maybe an all-in-one) and you're actually drawing on the screen, but what I really want is a very thin, very light laptop. And if it's that light, it'll tip every time I attempt to poke at the screen with my clumsy finger. And besides, a mouse and trackpad was good enough for Grandma and Grandpa, right?!
  6. Fitness trackers. Not for me. I don’t need a machine watching over my caloric intake and exercise levels; I'm married, after all. Also, I'm not fit enough—and don’t plan to get fit enough—to require tracking.
  7. Web-enabled toothbrushes. Or forks, kitchen scales, or vacuum cleaners. Yes, all of these things exist. The Internet of Things (IoT) is pretty amazing and, in many cases, very useful. But there seems to be this rush to connect everything to the Web, largely as a way for one to differentiate one's product from one's competitor's products. Not a smart move, security-wise; keep in mind that everything is hackable, and then think about the potential security risks inherent in even practical-sounding IoT gadgets such as thermostats, toaster ovens, fire alarms, baby monitors, etc. In any event, sometimes it seems a little silly. A Web-enabled coffee pot? Really? A connected trashcan that posts to Facebook? An IoT egg tray? Internet-connected diapers? A connected dog treat dispenser—with video chat, no less? (Speaking of which, there's also a dog fitness tracker.) Yes, all of these things really do exist, and many more, besides, and I neither have nor want any of them. (Although Annie-The-Dog might vote for the Web-enabled treat dispenser. Then again, she's pretty smart. She'd probably figure out a way to hack into it, and then we'd wonder why we were going through 12 lbs. of dog treats every week. And why she can no longer make it around the block without being carried—not that we could lift her.)

Actually, I guess I kinda like "dumb" stuff. I like having a device that is dedicated to doing one thing and which does it very well. Having a tool that's mediocre at half a dozen things doesn't do much for me. (It is possible to create a multifunction device that does several things very well, of course. Our computers and smartphones are proof of that. But it's fairly rare, and almost never on the first iteration of a technology.)
My current vehicle. We needed something to pull
the trailer, after all.
Come to think of it, when Lesley and I were first thinking about getting an RV, that's why we decided to buy a trailer instead of a motorhome. Motorhomes are awesome for full-timers (or almost full-timers), of course, but they're full of the sorts of compromises that are unavoidable when you want something to fulfill more than one function. Our biggest objection to a motorhome, though, was that we'd be paying for an engine and running gear that would end up sitting in storage for several months out of the year. Since we already have (and are paying for) an engine and running gear in the form of a very nice pickup truck, why buy another vehicle that's going to sit underutilized while we continue to pay for it?

This does not even count. It only has two wheels, right?
So... Maybe half a car?
Similarly, I'm not crazy about paying for an Internet-enabled toaster oven that I can control from my office when I would only do that once in a great while. Even when I'm not communicating with it over the Internet, I'm still paying for the ability to control it from my office. And I especially don't like the idea that some other person might figure out how to control it from his office.

Sunday, January 08, 2017

Saved, By George!

When I was very young and very stupid (those two often go together), I was almost bitten on the ass by a rattlesnake. Now, at the time, the standard first aid advice for snakebite was to have someone suck out the venom. In this particular case, that would have been a great way to find out who your friends really were. (The most recent recommendation is to skip the whole sucking-out-the-venom thing, a change which must have helped avoid many an awkward situation.)

This is a horned rattlesnake, such as one might find in the California or
Arizona deserts. If you see one, do not stop to pet it. Nasty disposition.
Not cuddly. (Image courtesy of Wikimedia commons user Tigerhawkvok.)
In any case, my friend George saved my . . . Well, you know. 

It was a very warm day in Los Angeles up on the fire roadsthose are dirt and gravel service roads that wind through the mountains between the San Fernando Valley and L.A. As it happens, we were actually out looking for rattlesnakes. (See? Stupid. But we got 30 cents a foot for them at a time when gas was 35 cents per gallon and a movie wasn't a whole lot more.) Even back then I was pudgy and out of shape, so I was hot and tired and about to throw myself down on the ground in the shade of a small water tower when George tackled me, pushing me out of the way. Coiled in the shaderight where I had intended to sitwas a rattlesnake. It was simply minding its own business, trying, as were we, to get out of the heat. Nonetheless, I don't think it would have taken too kindly to being sat on, on account of, you knowit was a damned snake! A species of pit viper, in fact; they're not known for being all warm and fuzzy and sweet-tempered. (There's a reason you never see cute little girls in front of the supermarket giving away young snakes from a basket of newborn reptiles. Kittens, yes. Puppies, maybe. Snakes, no.)

I bring this up because George was (and is) good at . . . well, stuff. I mean, saving lives, yeah, but he could also skin a rattlesnake, fix a sink, tune a car, repair a guitar amplifier, or build a barn. He could find his way by looking at the stars, he knew what plants were safe to eat, and he could tell the height of a tree by measuring the shadow of a pencil. Somehow. It apparently involves math and ratios and such. (I never quite understood the point of it, mind you. Seemingly, the Boy Scoutsan organization of which we were both members, George being an Eagle Scout, of coursefelt that it was important for us little scoutlets to know just how tall the tree was. Maybe there was a tree-height-measuring merit badge or something, I don't know.) Anyway, without George, I surely would have perished, bitten by a snake, poisoned by some plant I had thought was safe to consume, or possibly crushed by a too-tall tree. (George: "Well, officer, I know it's not much help now, but it might be useful to know that the tree that killed Rod was exactly 48 feet, 7 1/2 inches tall. Also, it fell pointing north-by-northeast, and as it fell, it uprooted a number of delicious milk thistle plants. Here, try one!")

George was adept at the technology of the day, andhere's the important parthe knew what to do when the technology failed, because he knew how the technology worked and he knew what had preceded the technology of the day. George is simply a handy guy, whereas I . . . well, I'm good at Scrabble and that's about it.

Unlike George, most of us are so reliant upon our technology that we would have no idea what to do in the absence of that technology. When our fancy tools fail, we're lost. I mean, if I come down in the morning and no one has set the timer on the coffeepot, I'm helpless; all I can do is stare at it and whimper softly until Lesley comes to save me. God only knows how I would cope with a real emergency, like if Netflix went away.

But not George; he would know exactly what to do.

And so would the guy who runs the Primitive Technology YouTube channel. This is a young man who wanders around the bush in Far North Queensland, Australia, creating tools using no tools other than the ones he created. Seriously. He's awesome. Watching his videos, you can learn how to build a shelter (complete with a tile roof and a built-in fireplace), weapons (like a shepherd's sling, a bow and arrow, or a spear thrower), or a fire for a forge, complete with bellows. (Keep in mind that he's doing this in the wilds of Australia, an entire continent where everything tries to kill you, including the beer. He seems unconcerned about this, and says that the only real danger is from snakes, so he takes care ". . . when walking about and lifting things from the ground." That's it. He "takes care." He is made of sterner stuff than most of us. I have to "take care" just getting out of bed.)

It's an amazing set of (so far, 22) videos, and it's educational and even inspiring to see how indigenous people learned to live off of (and live with) the land. Admittedly, this young man is strong, fit, and healthy, so he has some advantages over us old, pudgy has-beens. (Or, in my case, a never-was.)

But mostly what he has is a brain and an impressive skillset. He uses both to show that it is possible to fashion from nature's raw materials everything one needs to surviveand even thrivein the wild. As Duke University’s Henry Petroski has said, “Tools build tools.” And our Australian friend builds technology by creating the tools he needs in order to build still more tools.

He makes the rest of us look pretty helpless. Except for George, of course.